Michelle Aikman agonized for more than a year before agreeing to marry her military boyfriend. It wasn’t that Robert Aikman wasn’t handsome enough, kind enough, clever enough.
Aikman, 34, an ambitious young engineer from Littleton, Colo., just didn’t know whether she could accept the limitations her now-husband’s service in the Air Force would place on her career.
“I busted my hump to have every opportunity available,” Aikman said in a recent interview, “and as soon as I married into this life, that was all gone. That’s not acceptable to me.”
Aikman, who got married in 2002, isn’t alone.
A whopping 90 percent of female military spouses –- more than 600,000 people –- are either unemployed or underemployed, according to a recent study.
They endure frequent employment gaps and command paychecks about 38 percent lower than their civilian counterparts, the Military Officers Association of America study says.
The Department of Defense “recognizes and appreciates the challenges and sacrifices of our military families” and “is working across the board to provide a broad spectrum of career opportunities … for a range of education and experience levels,” DOD spokeswoman Joy Crabaugh told ABC News.
But despite the Defense Department’s efforts, which include career counseling and an online employment portal with 28,000 spouse profiles and an average of 150,000 jobs available daily, many spouses say they have come up empty-handed.
Almost 60 percent of military wives fear their partner’s active-duty status scares off potential employers wary of investing in short-term hires, according to the study. About 95 percent of military spouses are women.
“As soon as [employers] find out you’re connected to the military, the conversation is over. Their brain automatically goes to, ‘I’m not going to waste my time,’” said Aikman, who eventually became so frustrated that she abandoned engineering and began helping military families navigate career challenges full-time.
Like the more than 40 percent of military spouses interviewed for the study, Aikman, a mother of two, did not want to disclose her military connection during job interviews.
“At first I thought being honest and upfront … was the best way to approach it. But that always ended the conversation,” she said. “As I became aware of the response, I would try to avoid disclosing that information, which would get me past a certain point … but it comes out eventually.”
Even when spouses don’t mention their partners’ career, employment gaps, frequent job changes and even cross-country moves scream “military spouse.” Though 20 states prohibit employers from asking questions about marital status, some human resources managers still do.
“Employers are trying to protect themselves,” said Kaye Putnam, 27, a marketing professional from Laurium, Mich., and the spouse of an Army captain, “but I think they’re missing out on a huge talent opportunity.”
Because they relocate frequently, Putnam said military spouses often excel at building relationships and quickly establishing credibility. And because they know they don’t have much time to make an impact, she pointed out, military spouses tend to be more productive than other new hires.
Still, it’s often difficult to convince employers that military spouses are worth the investment, even if they’re short term.
Those that do find jobs after a permanent change of station, or PCS, often don’t stay long enough to earn seniority and face a string of lateral moves rather than a series of promotions.